The Power of Lament

July 2, 2023

Series: July 2023

Speaker: Bethany Nelson


Today's Sermon


"The Power of Lament"


Scripture Readings 

Jeremiah 1:4-8
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me,
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy;’ for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”

Jeremiah 20:7-13
O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughing-stock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, “I will not mention God, or speak any more in God’s name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. For I hear many whispering: “Terror is all around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!” All my close friends are watching for me to stumble. “Perhaps he can be enticed, and we can prevail against him, and take our revenge on him.” But the Lord is with me like a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail. They will be greatly shamed, for they will not succeed. Their eternal dishonor will never be forgotten. O Lord of hosts, you test the righteous, you see the heart and the mind; let me see your retribution upon them, for to you I have committed my cause. Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord!  For the Lordhas delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.


When my son was younger, he would throw a good tantrum every now and then, as most young children do.  It seemed, though, that he would always save his most outlandish behavior for his parents.  We usually got good reports from his day care and preschool, but then he would come home and totally lose his marbles.  I mentioned this phenomenon to my mom one day, and she responded, “Of course!  He knows he will always be loved at home, so that is a safe place for him to express all of his emotions.”  Well, thanks for throwing down that bit of wisdom, mom, but what I’d really like are some tips for how to get my son to not whine and complain while we’re trying to eat dinner.

Fast forward many years – my son is now 16 and is thankfully relatively tantrum-free – and my mom’s wisdom still resonates.  What a gift it is for each of us – whatever our age – to have a place, a person, a God where or with whom we feel so loved that we are safe to express all of our emotions … however messy they may be.  I hope this church community is one of those places for you.  I hope your relationship with God is also one of those places. 

I was reading a commentary by seminary professor Rachel Baard the other day, and she wrote, “Christians sometimes have a hard time dealing with other believers who are in pain and are angry at God. Admitting that they themselves have such feelings can be even harder.  It is as if we are afraid that such anger is blasphemy.”[i]  Somewhere along the line, we have been made to think that we need to have it all together to come to church, or to be with God in prayer.  Let me just get my life a little more together, and then I’ll be ready for worship.  That could not be further from the truth!  God is ready to receive all of our emotions – perhaps especially the messy ones.  And I hope this church community is a place where we share our burdens, moving through the tough stuff together … not hiding our troubles from one another.

Jeremiah certainly gives us an example of not holding back from God.  We first heard Jeremiah’s call story.  God wants Jeremiah to be a prophet, but Jeremiah is not so sure.  He has doubts – he is worried that he is too young, and doesn’t have the skills it takes to be a prophet.  But God assures him that he need not be afraid, and that God will be with him.  So, Jeremiah begins to prophecy, sharing God’s word with the people. Unfortunately, as Jeremiah feared, it is not an easy job.  Jeremiah has the misfortune of living during a time of great upheaval, and much of his prophecy has to do with warning the people of Jerusalem that their city will be destroyed.  You can guess that he is not the most popular person in town. 

We pick up the text in chapter 20, and Jeremiah is mad.  He is mad at the people, he is mad at God, he is mad at his situation.  When he speaks God’s word to the people, everyone mocks him. But if he tries to stay silent, God’s word is a burning fire in his bones.  He is stuck between a rock and a hard place, he does not like it, and he does not hesitate to let God know how frustrated he is.  What we hear in chapter 20 is a classic lament, as Jeremiah pours out all his emotion to God.  He doesn’t sugarcoat it.  He doesn’t pretend that all is OK.  He let’s God know exactly what he thinks about God and about his current situation.

But, even though Jeremiah is thoroughly upset with God, did you notice how he ends his lament?  He ends with praise and confidence in God.  God has promised Jeremiah that God would be with him, and somehow, some way, Jeremiah still believes that.  He laments, God, my life is terrible and I am mad at you.  And then … sing to the Lord, praise the Lord!  For God has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers. Rachel Baard notes that this accusation against God – this lament - is, in fact, an expression of faith.  It is not blasphemy.  It is not the antithesis of spirituality; it is part of it.  Lament, and even anger at God, is not the opposite of faith in God – it is faith in God.  Jeremiah knows that he is so unconditionally loved by God that God is always holding a safe space for him.  He can freely lament to God, sharing all of his difficult emotions, and God will still love and care for him just the same.

Jeremiah’s is not the only lament we heard this morning.  Anya just sang for us a powerful song of lament.  It began with the sharing of pain – “I keep fighting voices in my mind that say I’m not enough; every single lie that tells me I will never measure up.” Then, it moved to the petition, the request of God - “Remind me once again just who I am because I need to know.” Then, it finished with an expression of faith and healing, “You say I am loved when I can’t feel a thing.  You say I am strong when I think I am weak.  You say I am held when I am falling short. And when I don’t belong, You say I am Yours.” 

Offering our lament to God in this way is a powerful act of faith, and it can also be a powerful act of healing. Poet Ann Weems’ son died unexpectedly many years ago just after his 21stbirthday.  As she grieved, one of her friends suggested she write some lament psalms.  When reflecting on that suggestion, she writes, “There is no salvation in self-help books; the help we need is far beyond self. Our only hope is to march ourselves to the throne of God and in loud lament cry out the pain that lives in our souls.”[ii]  She found power in lament.  Healing power.  Not healing that magically takes away our pain, but healing that reminds us that we do not bear the pain alone.  (Weems ended up writing an entire book of lament psalms, which I highly recommend.)

We find healing when we bring our whole selves to God in lament, and hopefully we also find healing when we bring our whole selves to our church community.  Author Anne Lamott is an expert on talking to God and going to church exactly as you are. She has said many times that she never would have gone to church, or said a prayer, if she had to have her act together first.  She is also a good teacher about how we can show up for one another in the midst of our lament.  Lamott writes, “The truth is, everyone worth his or her salt - all your very best people - feel broken, stunned, overwhelmed some of the time. When people don't, when they feel very pleased with their personal upbeat selves, we absolutely don't want to sit near them at dinner. So what do I want to hear at a gathering, like church?

I want to hear, ‘Me, too. I have that, too. I know what that feels like.’ Gandhi and Jesus knew what it feels like, the loneliness, the sadness, the brutality.

I want to hear, ‘Wow, thank you for trusting me with that. What a big drag. Let's file a brief with the Complaints department. Come, let’s sit down with a nice cup of tea.’

I just want to hear that I'm loved and chosen and welcome, no matter what a mess I've made of things, or how defective I still feel sometimes. I want to hear that it will get better, although maybe not tomorrow right after lunch. I want to hear that you and God will never leave me alone. That I'm not nuts for finding life a totally mixed grille - that it can be hard, magical, brutal, gorgeous, unfair, hilarious, sweet, wild and mysterious, all at once. Or that if I am nuts, you're nuts too; and we are so lucky to be together in this jar; and so delicious.”[iii]

So, let’s be nuts together as we come to this table.  This table where all are welcome, exactly as we are. Come if you are full of praise. Come if you are full of doubt. Come if you are full of gratitude. Come if you are full of grief. Come if you are full of celebration. Come if you are full of anger. Come to the table.  Bring your whole self to God at this table.  Because this is a safe place, where we are loved abundantly and unconditionally, always.  Amen.


[i]Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, pg. 146.

[ii]Psalms of Lament, by Ann Weems, pg. xx.

[iii]Facebook post, May 30, 2015.